history, research, teaching

1 Comment

Oral Historians & Breakthroughs in Performance

This is the second of an oral history scraps series.* 

In this, and the next post, I want to talk about my favorite interview–favorite for the friendships, for the laughs, and for the research breakthroughs.

Before kicking off the oral history portion of my fieldwork, my host family took me to the chief for a proper introduction. The chief assigned an induna (headman) to assist in the identification of potential interviewees. Working through these local structures was only one part of interview recruitment; I was concerned that working with such political figures might influence who we interviewed and what was said. I was in the field during local government elections, heightening community tensions between Inkatha and ANC. While Inkatha established dominance in the entire region during and immediately after the transition-era civil war, the ANC began to gradually erode Inkatha’s support after 2004. In the run-up to the elections, the parties campaigned intensely, aware of the potential for an ANC victory. The splintering of Inkatha and the establishment of the National Freedom Party (NFP) in 2010 further increased existing tensions and resulted in the death of a local NFP candidate prior to the 2011 elections.[1]

On this particular morning, only several days into meetings, Thandeka and I showed up at Induna Ndlela’s house on the arranged morning, where several men and women waited to be interviewed. Ndlela encouraged us to start with Balothi Goge. We asked about his standing in the community: was he another induna or political party representative?

“No, he’s just old,” said Ndlela. We all laughed, but his answer was prescient.

Balothi Goge, born in 1935, was a treasure trove. His father, July Goge, was one of the chiefdom’s councilors during the construction of the local dam and the chiefdom’s establishment of the apartheid-era Tribal Authorities. July paid rent for a piece of land to an absentee landowner. When the land was sold, he was evicted to another part of the farm where he served as a labor tenant (providing labor for the white farmer in return for land access), and then worked with the local apartheid Bantu Affairs Agricultural Officer. Balothi  grew up on that farm, herding cattle and briefly attending school. He later worked as a migrant laborer in Durban before returning home to retire.

When the interview started, Baba Ndlela was sitting with us, and in the beginning was piping in with questions. Keenly aware of the political context, at first I was a bit nervous that he was directing the interview towards some particular motive… but  it quickly became apparent that he was simply curious. We asked him to move closer to the recorder, because he proceeded to  take over the interview. We couldn’t get words in, but it didn’t matter. Their conversation covered ground that at that stage I would not have known to cover. Goge provided keen insights into the history’s region that even izinduna did not know. Ndlela asked him incredulously:

NM      When were you planning to tell us about this history? Because if these young ladies did not come here, we would not know about our history.

GB      I was going to die with it because I could not tell anyone. I grew up living under my father’s regulations. If ever there was a meeting at Mazambane’s place, I used to go there to listen.

NM      But now you realise that we were living in the dark because we have no idea about things happening in this place?

GB      Nobody asked me about it, but now I am talking because someone wants to acknowledge the history, because there was nobody I was going to tell that this thing was known years ago.

The conversation between Ndlela and Goge lasted over an hour and a half, book-ended by the few questions we had asked to start the interview and to cover the (very few) things Ndlela missed. They covered history, culture, and politics, as well as everyday life — romantic courtships and wild foods young men ate while herding cattle.

Their conversation was a reminder to me, however wary I might have been of the powerful political context in which we spoke, to put down some of those suspicions and follow Baba Ndlela’s lead. While Goge acknowledged that our interest prompted him to share, Ndlela’s eager participation made clear that the conversation was about more than research.  I could think of their conversation as a “breakthrough in performance” (Hymes, 1975; Ibrahim, 2001) in which the performance was not for me. [2]


*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit.  Goge passed away sometime between our 2011 conversation and my 2013 return.

[1] “Camperdown: masked men shoot councillor,” Natal Witness April 14, 2011; “End intimidation, MEC tells parties,” Natal Witness May 3, 2011.

[2] On being flexible and attentive to oral historians’ knowledge and motives,  see Abdullahi A. Ibrahim, “The Birth of the Interview: The Thin and Fat of It,” in African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 103–24; Susan Geiger, “What’s So Feminist about Doing Women’s Oral History?” Journal of Women’s History 2:1 (1990); Dall Hymes, “Breakthrough into Performance,” in Folklore: Performance and Communication (1975); Luise White, “True Stories: Narrative, Event, History, and Blood in the Lake Victoria Basin,” in African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 281–304; Nwando Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings.


Leave a comment

On Power, Politics, and Oral History

This is the first of oral history scraps that may or may not become a series depending on my dedication.* 

Today, I juxtapose two powerful excerpts on power – on politics and development. But they are also comments about history and the conditions of power within oral history interviews (for readings, see below).

In this first snippet, a group of elders shared knowledge about the history of their chiefdom and neighbors. The local chief had arranged for me to meet them at the community center, but then left us to the task at hand. I sat with them on two separate occasions and originally planned to interview them one by one to gather multiple perspectives… but history here is a social act and on both occasions these turned into, at times heated, group interviews full of those different points of view. Each was eager to participate, because they recognized access to certain kinds of historical knowledge was not open:

“Everything works around politics now. Our history will be recorded and go to archives, but politicians can remove what doesn’t suit them. Our history and map of the chiefdom is at the parliament, but it would be hard to find it. Our chief hardly reached it because there is a politician at front. These chiefs are politicians and nobody is capable of removing them from the throne. [Launches  into lengthy dismissal of a neighboring chief’s rise to power.] That is how he became the Chief, but since everything is about politics you cannot remove him. If ever he got some threats, politicians would cover him. Then all the records would vanish because you are just an ordinary person and you cannot reach the records…

They said the democracy will bring back our land, but it depends who you are in this world.”

-June 06, 2014

In comparison, from another community, comes a lighter comment on power. This community elder sat with me and the chief. More so than others interviewed, he wanted to learn about me and my reasons for interest in local history. He scrutinized the consent form, joking that his ancestor had signed away part of his chiefdom. In sharing his knowledge about local land dispossession, he spoke about inequality in the wake of regional development projects:

Yes, but we never got any payment for the dam. Americans also drink this water! And [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe! Jill also drinks our water! [Laughing]

-June 26, 2014

Mugabe does not drink water from this dam. (In fact, South Africans plan to drink Mugabe’s water.) In America, I don’t drink this water. But I do when I live in South Africa, in the city, in whatever granny flat I call home. The dam is part of the Umgeni Water  system, the state-owned provider for potable water in KwaZulu-Natal, and thus, the likelihood that I indeed drink the dam’s water.

This stands in contrast to how our interlocutor consumes water. Not all homes in this peri-urban/peri-rural region are hooked into the municipal water system. Even for homes with taps in their yard, the infrastructure is dated and not regularly maintained–they may or may not work. Most families push wheelbarrows filled with water buckets from the municipal truck that delivers potable water. Additionally, the dam is fenced to keep the locals out unless they pay the fee to enter the dam’s recreational reserve.

In this complaint, he not only points out his lack of access to the dam. He also reminds me of the power dynamics–of race, of class, and of nationality–in our interview.


Photo by author, 2014

*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit. 

Mbilinyi, Marjorie. “‘I’d Have Been a Man’: Politics and the Labor Process in Producing Personal Narratives.” in Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1989).

Strobel, Margaret. “Doing Oral History as an Outsider.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 2, no. 2 (1977):68-72

Tonkin, Elizabeth. Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History. Camrbidge: Cambridge University Press (1992).


Oral History Snippets and Scraps

I haven’t blogged in a year. Oops.

I’m on leave (yay!) and spending a lot of time revisiting my oral history interviews as part of manuscript revisions. Reading, listening again produces a range of emotions and thoughts that won’t make it into any book or article. They deserve to be shared and despite my best efforts at creativity are too much for Twitter. I’ve decided to share them here periodically.* Stay tuned, first up tomorrow.


My office/research assistant


*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit. 

Leave a comment

World War II in Africa

This week in the Modern African history course we’re discussing African participation in World War II and its impact on the continent. Like the growing attention to World War I highlighted by the World War I in Africa project, it is increasingly easy to access media for classroom use. A few I have used successfully:


British Pathe coverage of Italian departure for Ethiopia, 1935:

Halie Selassie I speaks at the League of Nations after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, 1936:

Rare color footage (Kino Library) of Prisoners of War from the French colonies in Germany:

British Pathe footage of South African war effort & troops:


Ato Yanney’s His Majesty’s Sergent trailer

Ousmane Sembene’s (1988) Camp de Thiaroye

Rachid Bouchareb (2006) Indigènes (Days of Glory) trailer


BBC World Service three-part series “Africa’s Forgotten Soldiers” can be listened to by signing up for the radio archive.

My students listened to Afripod Episode 81: The Nigerian homefront in WWII.


Royal West African Forces SOURCE: Source: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Royal West African Forces
SOURCE: Source: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Leave a comment

Prime Evil’s Parole

Today, South Africa announced the parole decisions for three apartheid-era political assassins: Clive Derby-Lewis, Eugene de Kock and Ferdi Barnard. Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masuta announced that de Kock would be released. Despite the medical board‘s recommendation, the state denied Derby-Lewis (the man behind Chris Hani‘s murder) parole. The decision on Ferdi Bernard has been reserved. These decisions open old wounds and debate about more than just the fate of these assassins.

A sampling of responses:

The decisions are heated, certainly because of the brutality of men in question. De Kock is a veteran of the Rhodesian war and the Koevoet Police Counter-Insurgency Unit in Namibia. He took over as Dirk Coetzee’s successor at Vlakplaas.  Among De Kock’s crimes against humanity, he orchestrated the bombing of COSATU and Khotso Houses and the murder of the Cradock Four.

Funeral of the Cradock Four. Source: SAHA

Funeral of the Cradock Four. Source: SAHA

Conservative Party MP Derby-Lewis, now 78 and stricken with lung cancer, conspired with Janusz Walus to murder Hani and provided the weapon. Hani was, and remains, a revered figure in South Africa for his principles and leadership in the SACP and MK.

Source: Aluka

Source: Aluka

Ferdi Bernard hired a hitman to assassinate Anton Lubowski in Windhoek in 1989 and assassinated anti-apartheid activist David Webster in 1989. He attempted to murder Dullah Omar. Jacques Pauw described him as “one of apartheid’s most infamous hoodlums, a Rambo-esque killer who moved between the criminal underworld of drug dealing, prostitution, and diamond smuggling, and South Africa’s official business in the government’s dirty tricks units and deaths squads.”

Source: SAHA

Source: SAHA

But this debate is about more than individuals and their crimes. As T.O. Molefe pointed out six months ago, the “debate is especially frenzied because the racial hierarchy these men were defending when they committed their barbarous acts is still largely intact, even if the lives of many black people have improved since 1994.” Masuta alleges de Kock’s release is “in the interests of nation-building and reconciliation.” Tutu hopes it will contribute to such.

But can reconciliation be achieved when little has changed? Few high-ranking apartheid officials participated in the TRC and even fewer were tried in court. In his TRC testimonies and interviews with Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a TRC commissioner, De Kock declared himself the scapegoat for the apartheid officials who previously sought him out as a counterinsurgency strategist. Ronald Suresh Roberts points out that South African business beneficiaries have not been held accountable either.

The release of de Kock is about more than just his immediate victims. It’s also about every South African who experienced apartheid as well as those who continue to live with the legacies of apartheid.


Short read: BBC profile on de Kock

Long read: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night

Long read: Jacques Pauw’s Into the Heart of Darkness on Bernard, de Kock and others

Research: Amnesty applications of de Kock, Derby-Lewis and others are available online.

Listen: de Kock’s friend Professor Piet Croucamp spoke with the SABC about de Kock’s belief that F.W. de Klerk belonged in jail. (He’s right. Jabulani Sithole’s research puts de Klerk, who has always maintained his “clean hands,” at a meeting that approved the fostering of political violence.) The interview has perfect timing, as Cape Town plans to rename Table Bay Boulevard after the last apartheid president.

Watch: SABC’s “Truth Commission: Special Report Episode 61” on the amnesty application of Hani’s assassin, Janusz Walus, and the assassination’s mastermind, Clive Derby Lewis.

Watch: Documentary on Eugene de Kock, Prime Evil

Leave a comment

Repost: Lecture Prep and Digital Humanities

This is a re-post from my #DayofDH2014 page (April 8, 2014). 

Some portion of my Tuesday is usually devoted to grading and lecture prep for the rest of the week. Tomorrow the Modern Africa History course will cover decolonization in Portuguese Africa, so I want to blog about some of the great online digital sources and tools I use in this lecture.

The African Activist Archive (hosted by our #DayofDH2014 sponsor, MATRIX) has an awesome collection of posters on Angola and Guinea Bissau.

Angola for the Angolans

by Ato Seitu,Toronto Support Committee for MPLA
Montreal, Canada. No date, apparently late 1975 or early 1976

by Chicago Committee for the Liberation of Angola Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau Chicago, Illinois, United States Fall 1973

by Chicago Committee for the Liberation of Angola Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Fall 1973

The posters do not just operate as colorful background to the lecture. They serve as a tool for students to identify and discuss several important themes I hope to cover:

1) The role of international activists, here a U.S. campaign to boycott Gulf. Portugal received significant income from Gulf’s exploitation of Angolan oil that helped pay for its military activities in Angola against the struggle for independence.

by Pan-African Liberation Committee Brookline, Massachusetts, United States. Most likely late 1972 or 1973

by Pan-African Liberation Committee
Brookline, Massachusetts, United States. Most likely late 1972 or 1973

2) The role of women in the struggle for independence. Both the poster above and the items below portray female freedom fighters, allowing us to examine women at war. But students also discuss the decision to feature mothers and their children in these activist materials.

big32-131-3E6-98-LSM Angola 83

by Liberation Support Movement Information Center
Richmond, Canada. 1973


by Chicago Committee for the Liberation of Angola Mozambique and Guinea
Chicago, Illinois, United States. No date, 1972?

3) The context of the Cold War. Both the button and poster below provide entry into the discussion of U.S. support for UNITA in one of the Cold War proxy wars.

London, United Kingdom 1993 Publisher: Mozambique Angola Committee

London, United Kingdom
Publisher: Mozambique Angola Committee

by Young Socialist Alliance United States 1976 or later

by Young Socialist Alliance
United States
1976 or later

Finally, I use the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture’s Africana Age page for photographs of important leaders to accompany our discussion.

Agostinho Neto. UN photo from the Schomberg Center.

Agostinho Neto. UN photo from the Schomberg Center.

What other great digital sources do you use in lecture?

Leave a comment

“Nadine’s People”

The South African author, Nobel laureate, anti-apartheid and anti-secrecy activist Nadine Gordimer has died at the age of ninety.

Novelist Thando Mgqolozana tweeted this morning, “Nadine’s People,” a play on one of her most popular novels, July’s People.


I am one of Nadine’s People.

I frequently get asked, “Why South Africa?” Why did I choose to study South Africa?

Because I read Nadine Gordimer in high school.

Somewhere, someone has my copy of July's People. Return it, please!

Somewhere, someone has my copy of July’s People. Return it, please!

I was a senior at a small town school. There were four of us in my AP English class. For our final paper, the teacher put four novels on the library table and we each chose. I just queried one of my classmates with whom I still keep in contact. She cannot remember what she chose. Maybe something Russian, she thought? But I remember my part clearly.

I picked up Nadine Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature. I’m sure I’d be embarrassed now to read the paper I wrote then. But I am not being dramatic when I say that this assignment changed my life.

It lead me to read more, first to those most available in small town, America: Olive Schreiner, Doris Lessing, Alan Paton, Mandela’s autobiography and Tutu’s treatise on reconciliation. I’d later find Sindiwe Magona, Zakes Mda, Richard Rive, Alex La Guma.

It let me to study abroad in Durban during my junior year of college, where I studied isiZulu and lived with an isiZulu-speaking family.  It lead me to graduate school, research, and teaching.

One reviewer suggested A Sport of Nature marked how Gordimer “has evolved, adapted, triumphantly come of age…”  Gordimer’s evolution, adaptation, and coming of age certainly sparked mine.


My Zulu homestay family, the Msiyas

My 2003 homestay family, the Msiyas